I am a self-proclaimed herb freak. I would say that I have an all around voracious appetite for anything verdant, but herbs are my favorite of all. In the Summer, there is no dish that comes out of my kitchen that does not have a tinge of fragrant green. My hummus has speckles of basil and mint throughout, my black bean salad is loaded with mint and cilantro, and pasta is always tossed with herbs and garlic in any sort of shape or form.
Throughout the season I try to keep as many herbs on hand as possible. And I am very particular about where I source each one at the market. In fact, some of my market days are dictated by what herbs I can buy. I get my anise hyssop and za’atar (wild oregano) from Norwich Meadow Farm; my thyme, rosemary, and mint from Keith’s Farm; and parsley and basil I get from Lani’s (formerly Yuno’s). All of this sourcing makes a difference. If you have ever had the rosemary from Keith’s, then you know what I am talking about. It is what rosemary is meant to be, and the herb transforms whatever it touches. For that reason, my heart aches when I don’t make it to the market on Wednesdays.
Herbs are the perfect expression of terroir, or how the geography, climate, and soil of a region affect the flavor of its products. They are also the perfect example of how variety is so important in maintaining a healthy food culture. Rosemary grown at an organic farm in Orange County, New York, will taste very differently from rosemary grown out in California, or even from the one that you grow in your backyard. You might think that mint is mint is mint, but have you tried Apple Mint? Pineapple Mint? Spearmint? Chocolate mint? Orange mint? Kentucky Colonel Mint? Now which one would you choose to make mint ice cream? Or how about a Mojito? Now a Mint Julep? Once you start exploring all of the varieties of mint, you never stop. Each variety has a slightly different flavor, which will increase the depth of flavor in what you are cooking. Think about that when you go to buy herbs at the supermarket, where they come in plastic containers and smell very stereotypical and fresh, but maybe not quite so nuanced.
Now on to recipe ideas, aka, the fun part. Cocktails: One of my favorite cocktails this Summer still does not have a name, but I will call it something sooner or later. You take a whole lot of basil and mint (I have been using the Kentucky Colonel from Keith’s), a good shot of vodka, a good drizzle of agave, and the juice of two limes. Shake it up over ice and strain. It doesn’t get more refreshing than that. I have also thrown in some nettle water, but I don’t want to scare you. If you are interested, I will post what that is.
Appetizers: I haven’t really touched many ingredients this Summer, because all I have been eating has been hummus, hard-boiled eggs, and potatoes. I can’t explain it, but that is that. But I have been adding a ton of basil and cilantro to my hummus, as well as a serrano pepper for some oomph. It is velvety and green, with a nice twist of fresh and spicy. Other herbaceous apps and sides: Corn on the Cob with Herb Oil, Shiso Salsa Cruda, and Carrots with Carrot Top Chermoula.
Entrees: I eat a lot of beans. Tuscans are known as “fagiolini”, because they eat a lot of beans, so I like to call myself a “Fagiolina”. These dishes could count as appetizers, but I eat them as mains. I love my hummus garbanzo salad with chickpeas, tomatoes, cucumber, red onion, and hard boiled egg tossed with olive oil, tahini, and lemon juice. I toss in some fresh oregano, thyme, and/or mint, and dried za’atar (the spice mix). Or my Latin Black Bean Salad with Peaches, cilantro, mint, basil, red onion, corn, tomatoes, scallions, and anything else that is fresh. That dish was inspired by something Autumn Stoschek made for us when we visited Eve’s Cidery, and I eat it at least once a week in the Summer. I also love to do a cannelini salad with rosemary and sage, and maybe some chopped preserved lemon. Other dishes to try: Classic Pesto Genovese; Michael Orkin’s Sage, Basil, and Rosemary Burgers; and Zucchini with Corn, Clams, and Scallops.
Desserts: It might sound strange to have herbs in desserts, but they go so well. Chocolate Rosemary Ice Cream is a delight, and so is our Oregano Muhallebi (a sublime oregano-infused milk pudding). These drier herbs have a lovely affinity for milk, and the sharper mints and basils go great with fruits.
Pretty soon, herbs will start to fade from the market, and it will become spice season again, but in the meantime we have a lot herbs to explore.
If you haven’t noticed the golden cherry tomatoes that are everywhere at the markets these days, you are missing out on a true treasure. I bought two pints the other day. I kept one of the pints raw for salads and popping into my mouth while I am cooking, and the other pint I slow-roasted for fun. Slow roasting is a technique to use that will soften your vegetables and concentrate their flavor times 10. I loved the result of slow roasting the tomatoes, as it amplified their sweetness and made them ready for adding to salads and garnishing other dishes (like black beans). I tossed them with a tablespoon or so of olive oil, added some fresh rosemary and oregano, and then put them in a 200 F oven for about 2 hours. My apartment smelled incredible, and I have been enjoying them in many different dishes since. Try it at home!
I am usually disturbed by the food commercials that appear on television. This is because it is very rare that a food that you actually should eat is actually advertised. Fresh organic peaches from a local farm at the market certainly are not, neither are heirloom beans, nor artisan bakers for that matter. Not only do they do not have the money to pay for ad space during the Today Show, but I also think it must seem ridiculous to the producers of these products to advertise something that in its purity advertises itself. This leaves junk food, or what unfortunately many people think is normal food, to be targeted at millions of people daily.
There is one ad on the television these days that I find particularly offensive. The ad is for a name-brand cereal bar with fiber in it. Even though I am used to the ridiculousness of these commercials, this one threw me over the edge. In it, there is a man who is handing out samples of these bars, which have added fiber in them. They also have chocolate chips, which always seems like a strange addition to supposedly “healthy” foods. Why on earth are there chocolate chips in breakfast bars (why are there breakfast bars?), energy bars, and granola? Anyway, the first woman in line who samples the bar cannot believe that it is that delicious and has fiber. She is convinced that the sample man is playing tricks on her. When a second woman (a similar demographic to the first) comes up to sample, the first one continues to ask in an excited tone what she thinks of the bar. How can it taste good and have fiber in it is the question they ask. The comparison of fiber to “cardboard” is mentioned.
I was stunned when I saw this commercial. The fact that we are so dumb to think that we need a bar with added sugar and who-knows-what-else-in-it to give ourselves a basic nutrient speaks very strongly about the depth of our country’s nutritional crisis. What I find so offensive about the commercial, though, is that the company is convincing the viewers that fiber, in fact, does taste like cardboard, and not like apples, strawberries, oatmeal, rice, beans, beets, almonds, or any other delicious food that is in fact healthy for us. Let me add that these foods are delicious in their natural state or a very basic preparation. It is also trying to persuade us that fiber is this hard to attain star of a nutrient that we can only rely on a bar with chocolate chips to provide us with. I could go on, but I think I made my point.
Do yourself a favor and avoid foods you see advertised on television. Chances are they are not made with your health in mind.